Friday, January 11, 2013

My Year of Reading: Best Books of 2012

I tried to whittle the list down to a Perfect Ten.  It was like I was Meryl Streep in Sophie's Choice at the gates of the concentration camp being forced to choose between my favorite children.  I just couldn't do it.

Then I tried to make it a fiction-only list.  That would mean losing some worthy books like Dust to Dust and The Liberator.  I wasn't about to drop them from the list.

And then I made myself go through the list again with determined resolve: eliminate those books which I really, really liked but maybe didn't love to the highest degree.  Again, impossible.  They were all beauties.

Finally, I surrendered and said "To hell with it, I'll serve the whole list, the entire feast laid out on the banquet table."  When putting together one of these compilations, it's difficult enough to artificially determine what makes one book "better" than the other.  Nearly all the 56 books I read in 2012 had merit and deserved the kind of attention we annually give in these contrived lists.  But after weeks of mulling over the long-list of titles, going back to re-read a few passages, and going for long walks in the snow to clear my head, these are the Last Books Standing.

Here are my favorite reading experiences of the past year--limiting myself to books published in 2012--presented in random order:

by Alexis M. Smith
Tin House Books

What can I say about this slim, perfect novel that I haven't already said like a rooster crowing from a barnyard roof?  I loved Smith's debut novel with the white-hot heat of a thousand suns--enough to melt all the glaciers in Alaska, where parts of the book are set.  Glaciers is deceptively simple on the surface: the novel chronicles one day in the life of Isabel, a twenty-eight-year-old library worker, as she repairs damaged books, prepares for a party, and pines for a co-worker, an Iraq War veteran named "Spoke."  But like the stately icebergs floating in the Alaskan seas, there is so much more hidden below the surface.  Like the ephemera Isabel collects--postcards, teacups, aprons, dresses and other scraps of discarded lives--Smith gathers bits and pieces of Isabel's memories, lives lived, loves lost, dreams waiting to be fulfilled.  I bought Glaciers back in February and have not stopped talking about it ever since.

The Odds
by Stewart O'Nan

When it comes to putting American culture under a microscope, few novelists succeed as well as Stewart O’Nan. Time after time, novel after novel, O’Nan has focused tightly on particular microbes of our society and examined the foibles, the follies, and the flaws of the Way We Live.  In The Odds, he puts a troubled marriage in the petri dish.  As we're told in the first sentence, Art and Marion Fowler are headed for Niagara Falls on "the final weekend of their marriage, hounded by insolvency, indecision, and, stupidly, half-secretly, in the never-distant past rule by memory, infidelity."  In their early fifties and traveling along the time-worn ruts of their marriage, the Fowlers avoid the hard realities of their fizzled romance--to the point where this novel could be subtitled What We Don't Talk About When We Talk About Love.  The marriage is pocked with craters, a minefield of secrets which have brought them to the brink of divorce and, by consequence, the edge of bankruptcy.  They're $250,000 in debt, Art is six months out of work, and they face foreclosure on their home in Cleveland.  Now they're literally gambling on the future of their relationship in the casinos at the Niagara resort where Art has booked them a room on Valentine's Day.  In truth, neither character is a wholly likable person, but O'Nan makes us sympathetic to their plight.  By novel's end--which comes quickly and abruptly--we're rooting for this marriage to be saved.  For such a short, 200-page relationship, I found myself incredibly moved by what happens to Art and Marion Fowler as they float down the river, calling for help from their barrel just before they go over the edge of the Falls.  Read the full review.

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk
by Ben Fountain

Ben Fountain's debut novel is like a poison-tipped knife stabbed into the belly of America.  It is a scathing, effective criticism of how the nation flounders in a time of war.  Well-meaning as some of the eye-bulging, neck-vein-popping post-9/11 patriotism may have been, Fountain sees it as misplaced and misguided.  If you're one of those who say "Cut me--I bleed red, white and blue" or who reverently kneel at the Altar of George Dubya or who still believe there are weapons of mass destruction somewhere out there in the Iraqi sands, then you'd best steer away from this novel.  If, on the other hand, you find yourself saying (as Fountain did before he wrote the book), "What has America come to?" then step inside these pages for a closer look at our flawed, complicated country.  Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk follows one group of soldiers over the course of one day as they prepare to be feted at half-time during a football game in Texas Stadium (home of "America's team," the Dallas Cowboys).  The men of Bravo Squad, newly-famous thanks to footage of an intense firefight in Iraq broadcast by an embedded Fox News crew, will be joined at the center of the field by a pelvis-grinding Destiny's Child, phalanxes of Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders, and a sky full of fireworks.  The Thanksgiving Day game is the culmination of a PR-slick Victory Tour ("One nation, two weeks, eight American heroes") and will irrevocably change the lives of the soldiers and, quite possibly, every reader who picks up this incredibly smart, timely novel full of words that fly like precision-guided missiles.  Read the full review.

Shine Shine Shine
by Lydia Netzer
St. Martin's Press

I seldom find myself at a loss for words (hey, I'm a writer!), but when I try to describe Lydia Netzer's debut novel to potential readers, I stammer with an odd start-and-stop hesitation:  "You see, it's about a man, a NASA engineer, who's sent to space to program robots for a space colony--No, it's not science-fiction--But it's not not science-fiction, because there's lots of computers and formulas--Geeky stuff aside, it's also a love story, but probably not the kind you're expecting because there's--Well, see, there's his wife Sunny who's left back here on Earth to deal with a whole bunch of things--Like their autistic son and the chatty, catty other astronauts' wives and her dying mother--and, oh did I mention Sunny's bald?  Yes, that's important--and so is the good-looking weatherman--and--Well, maybe it's just best you read the book for yourself."  Shine Shine Shine is one of those rare novels which can't be neatly stuffed into a comfortable category.  Neither can Netzer's off-beat writing style.  Let's just say she combines math, motherhood, Asperger's, and robots into one simmering, delicious stew of a novel.  It's dark, it's romantic, it's irresistible.  And it should be the next book waiting for you on your bedside table.

The Casual Vacancy
by J. K. Rowling
Little, Brown and Company

I made it through one-and-a-half of the Harry Potter books before losing interest and I gamely endured all of the bloated, self-important movies, but for some reason I never clicked with J. K. Rowling.  I don't think it was entirely her fault--sometimes, no matter how hard I try and how open I keep my expectations, I just don't latch on to an author and her work.  So, when I approached Rowling's "first book for adults," I came with the bar set low.  It only took about 30 pages of settling in to the rural English community of Pagford in The Casual Vacancy for me to become fully absorbed and blast that bar sky-high--right around the time hapless school principal Colin "Cubby" Wall is announcing the death of Barry Fairbrother to the student assembly, shamelessly sobbing his grief in front of all the students, and someone in the gymnasium laughs.  It's small moments like that which make The Casual Vacancy such a compelling, addictive novel.  Make no mistake, this is a big book full of a potentially confusing cast of characters--all of them connected in one way or another to the late Barry Fairbrother, Pagford's parish councilman whose death leaves a "casual vacancy."  But to Rowling's credit, she invests each and every one of those characters with enough vibrancy and energy that they spring to life in a way that I could only describe as Dickensian or, dare I say, Downton-Abbeyish.  And because I cared so much about these characters, that made it all the more wrenching to read some very hardcore, adult scenes involving drugs, squalor and death (of which there are some very sad ones in these pages).  I don't think I was more emotionally invested in a 2012 book than I was with The Casual Vacancy and I arrived at the last page with reluctance and sorrow that it all had to end so soon.

by Adam Braver
Tin House Books

In the kingdom of Misunderstood Icons, Marilyn Monroe undoubtedly reigns as the queen.  Her name and image are ubiquitous but not attached to any real person.  She has been folded, spindled and mutilated.  But do we really know her?  Will we ever know her?  Adam Braver's book may not move us any closer to solving the riddle of Marilyn (it is a novel, after all), but that's not its true aim.  Misfit is as much about the price of fame and the cult of celebrity as it is about a famous celebrity's last days. "To negotiate the chosen world, she has to conform to the chosen world," Braver writes.  "And that's usually the point when she'll give in and fall apart. When she's conformed so much that it swallows her whole."  This novel is, above all, a richly-layered, perfectly-paced historical novel (a genre at which Braver excels--in fact, he may be my favorite historical novelist of all time, nudging E. L. Doctorow off that pedestal).  Misfit glides effortlessly across the span of Monroe's life, but focuses in particular on the shooting of her last completed film, The Misfits, and her final weekend spent at CalNeva, Frank Sinatra's Lake Tahoe resort which sat on the California-Nevada border (which in itself is rife with symbolism--Marilyn caught between two worlds).  Braver's writing is as breathtakingly beautiful as the movie goddess herself.  Consider this moment when she arrives at a Los Angeles restaurant to meet future husband Joe DiMaggio: "Once she enters, there is no question how her presence changes the room.  Like a giant exhalation.  Dressed in black, she commands the attention of the Villa Nova, strolling with slow purpose until she reaches the table.  It's as though the whole restaurant has brightened, the candles' flames standing taller.  There is something light about her, at once ghostly and cartoonish."  Braver brings alive a Marilyn Monroe we never knew and makes her someone we can understand beneath the skin of celebrity.

Stray Decorum
by George Singleton
Dzanc Books

As I wrote at The Barnes and Noble Review recently, George Singleton lovingly lampoons the residents of his Confederate-state universe of South Carolina in this latest collection of short stories.  "People we get who ain't from around here, they come in thinking they'll be surrounded by the lost and losing.  But we're some regular philosophers, when it all boils down," says one character as he sits at a bar which, by the way, doesn't carry light beers--"only Budweiser, Pabst, and regular Miller, all in cans."  As the cover design indicates, dogs figure prominently in these stories and, frankly, they're the most normal characters we encounter.  Their owners are preoccupied, self-absorbed, and unfailingly hilarious.  Singleton can wring a chuckle from me with a single descriptive sentence of a character--a house-numbers salesman, for instance, who "looked as if he combed his hair after a careful diagnosis from a slide rule, T-square, and micrometer."  Or this opening sentences from one of the stories ("The First to Look Away"):  "Our house's value, I understand now, never increased after my father completed the moat."  I challenge you to not continue reading something like that.  Singleton always seems to have a joke in his back pocket, and he's not afraid to whip it out to use as currency. Sure, his characters border on caricatures, but it is the weird, the off-beat, and the off-kilter that make the worlds of these stories more "real" than reality. Through hyperbole, we approach the truth; through the weird, we find the sane; and through humor, we get down to the serious business of understanding life.

Charles Dickens
by Claire Tomalin
Penguin Press

This past year marked the bicentennial of Charles Dickens' birth and, predictably, saw the publication of several books about the great novelist.  The only one I chose to read was Claire Tomalin's biography--and it turned out to be all I needed to understand the man, the novelist, the family scalawag.  There are enough facets to his personality to be the subject of half a dozen separate biographies, but Tomalin bottles his lightning quite nicely in this one volume.  Her tone is both scholarly and intimate as she explores all facets of Dickens, warts and all.  In fact, at one point Tomalin warns the reader: "You'll want to avert your eyes from a good deal of what happened during the next year, 1858."  Dickens was so dedicated to his art that eventually everything else of consequence (paternal duties, husbandly fondness) was shoved to the sidelines.  His imagination was a dynamo at the hot, humming center of the engine that drove him to write at such a rapid pace.  In one letter to his friend Miss Coutts, he writes, "I have been so busy, leading up to the great turning idea of the Bleak House story, that I have lived this last week or ten days in a perpetual scald and boil."  To touch the man at work was to be burned by his focused fever.  Dickens may have been dead 142 years, but for the space of nearly 500 pages in this biography, he has been kindled to life again. Rejuvenated, he bustles through the Old Bailey criminal court, taking notes as a young journalist; he moves his pen across 9 x 7 inch pages at lightning speed, dipping the nib into the inkwell and spattering drops as he creates Wackford Squeers and Uriah Heep and Sairey Gamp; he hurries through the London suburbs on one of his legendary walks, his legs carrying him across the land, his England, at speeds up to five miles per hour.  He smolders, he sparks, he bursts into flame.  Just as Dickens created characters who were larger than life, Tomalin makes her subject bound from the grave with a joie de vivre you won't find in other biographies of Dickens.  This is the one to be measured against.

by Richard Ford

"First, I'll tell about the robbery our parents committed.  Then about the murders, which happened later."  That's the concise, but oh-so-expansive opening to Richard Ford's novel.  Ford is the master at long, expository first sentences (See Also: "Optimists" and Wildlife), but here he goes short.  Those two sentences neatly set up the two halves of the novel.  In the first part, we meet fifteen-year-old Dell Parsons who lives in Great Falls, Montana with his parents and his twin sister Berner.  After the parents rob a bank in North Dakota in 1960, Berner flees the home for a better life and Dell is spirited away by a concerned family friend who takes him north across the border into the broad prairies of Saskatchewan.  Here, in the second half of Canada, is where the real meat of the book lies (there's a reason it's not titled Montana).  Yes, there is a murder (I won't reveal whose), but there is also a rapid maturity on Dell's part.  While I enjoyed some of the writing in the first half of the book more than I did the Canada chapters, there was enough narrative tension throughout to keep me turning the pages at a rapid clip.  This is Ford's strongest work since Rock Springs (a book which I will argue to my grave was his best) and culminates in a late-in-life meeting between Dell and Berner that aches with both regret and hope, closing the book with a marvelous majesty.

Dust to Dust: A Memoir
by Benjamin Busch

Of all the books I read in 2012, Dust to Dust stands out as the most unique and the hardest to pigeonhole.  It is, from first to last, a book whose every word is weighed carefully before being placed on the page.  It is, therefore, little surprise that Benjamin Busch is the son of Frederick Bush (The Night Inspector), one of our most criminally-underread novelists of the past two decades.  Ben was a cast member of the HBO series The Wire (playing Officer Anthony Colicchio), and served two combat tours in Iraq as a Marine.  That’s enough for three books right there, but Dust to Dust melts the art of memoir down to something else entirely.  Each page is packed tight with sentences that would be right at home in the stanzas of a poem.  Busch doesn’t take a linear, chronological approach to his life; instead he loops through the helix of memory--stories of building a snow fort as a child are followed by a battle scene where the air is “sliced with bullets” which gives way to a lyrical passage about the impermeability of rocks.  You know how film trailers cut and splice and thoroughly mess with the timeline of the movie’s story?  That’s how Busch approaches his autobiography.  He is equally adept at describing the exhumation of a mass grave in Iraq ("As the Iraqis lifted the skeletons up, dust rose out of the holes and I stepped carefully upwind.  I knew what most of that dust was") as he is in describing his father at work: "My father had chosen words over war....He fought his art on a manual typewriter, and when I was little I could hear the keys banging as he forced letters onto paper.  There were pauses, of course, and sometimes I would try to imagine the cause for the break in intervals of tapped code.  Was he thinking or had he made a mistake?  A writer could erase mistakes.  Another difference between art and war."  In Dust to Dust, the son follows the father's footsteps, then veers off onto his own path, forging a way into a bold new form of memoir.

The Yellow Birds
by Kevin Powers
Little, Brown and Company

As I mentioned earlier, Powers' debut novel had my favorite opening line of the year: "The war tried to kill us in the spring."  It's syntactically simple, but carries a swift uppercut of emotion when you let it fully sink in.  The rest of the book about a young soldier's harrowing odyssey through the Iraq War and his equally difficult return to the United States is just as strong.  It's lyrical, it's profound, and it will break your fucking heart.  It belongs on the same shelf as war chroniclers like Ernest Hemingway and Tim O'Brien and I completely agree with Ann Patchett who said the novel is "harrowing, inexplicably beautiful, and utterly, urgently necessary."  The book is narrated by 21-year-old Private John Bartle who is just trying to get through the war in one piece while protecting his battle buddy Private Murphy.  The turning point in the story comes when, on the eve of their departure overseas, Bartle makes a regrettable promise to Murphy's mother to bring her son home safely--a vow that later enrages the soldiers' NCO who, rightly so, punches Bartle to the ground for giving the mother false hope.  As anyone who's been to war will tell you, the only predictable thing about combat is its unpredictability.  Or, as Powers more eloquently puts it in The Yellow Birds: "We were not destined to survive.  The fact is, we were not destined at all.  The war would take what it could get.  It was patient.  It didn't care about objectives, or boundaries, whether you were loved by many or not at all.  While I slept that summer, the war came to me in my dreams and showed me its sole purpose: to go on, only to go on.  And I knew the war would have its way."

Too Bright to Hear Too Loud to See
by Juliann Garey
Soho Press

Along with having one of my favorite titles of the year, Juliann Garey's debut novel proved to be one of the most riveting reading experiences of 2012.  Too Bright to Hear Too Loud to See takes us into the unstable mind of Hollywood studio exec Greyson Todd who, soon after the novel opens, leaves his wife and young daughter and aimlessly travels the world, giving free rein to the bipolar disorder he's been forced to keep hidden for almost 20 years. The novel weaves together three timelines: the story of Greyson's travels to places like Rome, Israel, Santiago, Thailand, and Uganda; the mental breakdown of his own father; and Greyson's troubled marriage.  What really makes Garey's novel unique is the fact that the entire narrative unfolds in the time it takes him to undergo twelve 30-second electroshock treatments in a New York psychiatric ward.  As Greyson takes his decade-long odyssey around the globe in search of himself, he finds he has one more place to travel: deep inside the jungle of his head. This is an important novel, an eye-opener, and, at times, a white-knuckle horror show in its depiction of mental illness.

by Chase Novak
Mulholland Books

Be advised: do not start reading this novel at the end of a long day when the dishes have been washed and put away, the kids are tucked into bed, the spousal foot-rub has been requested and received, the glass of wine is drunk and starting to mellow the bloodstream, teeth are brushed, pajamas donned, and all that remains is for you to pick up a bedside book with plans to read “just a few pages” to help you drowse off.  Breed is the worst kind of sleep aid imaginable.  I can’t remember the last time I gripped a book this hard, squeezing the pages until the beds of my fingernails turned white.  Novak (a pseudonym for Scott “Endless Love” Spencer) flips the Rosemary's Baby formula and makes the parents the monsters.  When we first meet them, twins Adam and Alice are prisoners in their own home—a dark townhouse full of odd smells and sounds.  We soon learn they are locked in their rooms at night for their own protection.  Like desperate fairy tale characters, they eventually escape and then, for most of the book, the 10-year-olds are running for their lives through the streets of Manhattan, trying to stay ahead—sometimes only by a city block—of their parents Alex and Leslie.  Novak extends the chase over the course of several chapters (including one fantastic scene in the Metropolitan Museum of Art) and never once falters in the novel's unrelenting suspense.  This is no mere escapist horror to be consumed quickly at the beach (or hiding, nerves jangled, under the bed covers); Novak raises some penetrating questions about parenting and the true nature of love.  Read the full review.

Panorama City
by Antoine Wilson
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

You've never met anyone like Oppen Porter, the narrator of Antoine Wilson's remarkable novel Panorama City.  He's a self-described "slow absorber," a simple soul with complex sentences tumbling from his mouth as he narrates the story of his life into a cassette-tape recorder while he lies on his deathbed in the hospital.  Oppen is not dying, but don't try telling him that.  He's convinced The End is rushing toward him with open (Oppen?) arms and so he's desperate to get all the words out before it's too late.  Wilson drives his novel forward with an unrelentingly original voice, reminding me at every turn of another memorable character: Owen Meany.  Here, for example, are the words Oppen greets us with on the first page of Panorama City: "If you set aside love and friendship and the bonds of family, luck, religion, and spirituality, the desire to better mankind, and music and art, and hunting and fishing and farming, self-importance, and public and private transportation from buses to bicycles, if you set all that aside money is what makes the world go around.  Or so it is said.  If I wasn’t dying prematurely, if I wasn’t dying right now, if I was going to live to ripeness or rottenness instead of meeting the terminus bolted together and wrapped in plaster in the Madera Community Hospital, if I had all the time in the world, as they say, I would talk to you first of all about the joys of cycling or the life of the mind, but seeing as I could die any minute, just yesterday Dr. Singh himself said that I was lucky to be alive, I was unconscious and so didn’t hear it myself, Carmen told me, I’ll get down to so-called brass tacks."  What makes Panorama City so touching, and gives it a balancing dose of sentimentality, is the fact that Oppen is telling his life-story to his unborn son, Juan-George.  I can only imagine what a lovable, screwed-up person that kid is going to grow up to be.  Maybe Wilson will give little Juan-George his own story someday.

The Liberator: One World War II Soldier's 500-Day Odyssey from the Beaches of Sicily to the Gates of Dachau
by Alex Kershaw

The lengthy subtitle succinctly sums up the events you'll find in this 450-page military history. But what it won't tell you is how fully Alex Kershaw plunges you into the life of his main "character," Felix Sparks of the U.S. Army's 45th Infantry "Thunderbirds" Division, as he makes his way across Europe during World War Two.  Kershaw is a masterful narrative historian, making the combat campaigns easily digestible to even the most battle-map-challenged reader like me.  The Liberator is most effective when it views war from the inside out--burrowing us deep into horrific scenes through the eyes of its weary and wary participants.  Here's just one paragraph from the first time Sparks has to lead his men into battle as they land on the beaches of Italy: "Ramps came down.  The landing craft disgorged a foul soup of puke and seawater.  Men pushed forward onto the churned sands and began weaving through piles of Allied supplies.  Sparks led his men inland, passing the ancient ruins of Pastum, famous for its three great temples, whose towering columns still stood, seemingly in defiance.  Evidence of fierce and desperate fighting lay all around as he moved farther inland: abandoned German anti-tank guns, packs dropped by men in a hurry, vehicles blackened and still smoldering.  Not far from one temple stood the charred hulk of a German tank that had received a direct hit and then 'brewed up' as the British put it, exploding into flames.  The Germans had been trapped inside, and a puddle of their fat, coated in brightly colored flies, spread slowly beneath the tracks."  There are plenty more moments like that as Kershaw brings war from the far remove of history and plops it right into our laps.

From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant
by Alex Gilvarry

What happens when you take haute couture and combine it with Bush-era politics, fertilizer bombs, and Guantanamo?  You get one of the funniest books of the year.  Alex Gilvarry's debut novel From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant follows the trials and tribulations of Boy Hernandez, rising fashion designer and accused terrorist.  Picture Zoolander getting slammed with the Patriot Act and you'll get a sense of where this book is headed.  Boy's troubles begin soon after he arrives from his native Philippines and makes the wrong kind of friends in New York City--specifically his neighbor Ahmed Qureshi, a Canadian Muslim and smuggler of questionable goods (such as those sacks of fertilizer stacked in his apartment).  The novel is populated with a virtual circus of characters--from the stoic-but-sympathetic Guantanamo guard to Boy's publicist, a gay Irishman from Queens with the unfortunate name of Ben Laden.  Gilvarry spins his Kafkaesque tale of Detainee No. 227 with brio and brash energy, never faltering in his drive to stab the knife ever deeper into the often wrongheaded politics of the post-9/11 era.  From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant is the best kind of satire: bitter and delicious!

*     *     *

As for the list of books that weren't published in 2012, I read several that stood out--classics which had long been on my To-Be-Read list as well as 2011 books which I wasn't able to get around to reading last year:

After years (decades!) of eyballing him on my bookshelf and knowing deep in my heart of hearts that he's a writer I was preconditioned to love, I finally pulled down a novel by Clyde Edgerton.  Raney proved to be every bit as funny as I'd expected.  Maybe even more so.  It went all the way to 11.

Just as Glaciers was my happy discovery of 2012, Scott Sparling's neo-noir novel Wire to Wire (also from Tin House Books) was a 2011 release which blew my socks off and rattled my teeth.  I spent the majority of the book shaking my head in amazement and saying, "Oh Mr. Sparling, where have you been all my life?"  My profoundest thanks to Diane Prokop who played matchmaker and arranged for Scott and I to meet during my Powell's reading in Portland.  Next to Glaciers, Wire to Wire was the best money I spent on a book this year.

Mary Jane Nealon's riveting memoir Beautiful Unbroken: One Nurse's Life was one of the first books I read last January and, if my timing had been better, it would have easily landed on last year's best-books list.  This memoir about nursing, the bonds of family, and the AIDS epidemic will break your heart.  But in a beautiful way.

Pinckney Benedict was one of the first authors I had the privilege of meeting in this whirlwind year of book festivals, readings, and conferences.  Though Pinckney and I had corresponded for years (starting when I was in Iraq in 2005), I was ashamed that I hadn't yet read any of his books.  His 2010 collection Miracle Boy and Other Stories was the perfect place to start.  Stand-out story: "Joe Messinger is Dreaming" which takes us inside the space suit of the titular character as he makes a world-record 120,000-jump from a weather balloon.

What It Is Like to Go to War by Karl Marlantes is another 2011 book I'd been saving for just the right moment. There could never be a better moment than 2012--the year when--at last, at last, at last--it seemed like the overlong wars in Iraq and Afghanistan might finally be sputtering to an end. To say that What It Is Like to Go to War should be required reading for every member of the military, Congress and Oval Office (not to mention mothers, fathers, pipe-fitters, veterinarians, tax accountants, college students, and Wal-Mart checkers) is like saying the Bible is recommended for churchgoers. Marlantes' meditation on the cost of war--high, but sometimes necessary--is one of the most important books you'll ever read.


  1. What a wonderful, eclectic list! Have added several to my wish list--thanks!

  2. I see some books I haven't heard of here. Great list!!

    I, too, loved SHINE SHINE SHINE.

  3. Brilliant list. Books I've wondered about, books I've never heard of. Books I want to get to know much better, thanks to your description. I've read this with my Amazon wish list open!

  4. After reading this, I definitely have added books to my "to-read" list. :) Now all I have to do is find more TIME to read. Wink. :)

  5. Thanks for the mention, David! It was surely a match made in heaven.

  6. Great list! 'Canada' is next on mine. What's up next for you in '13???

  7. Andrew: Some of my first 2013 reading will be finishing up some things I started in 2012 (like Flannery O'Connor's biography and a collection of Chekhov novellas). After that, it's anybody's guess, but if I had to choose one title that's near the top of the list, it would be "Falling to Earth" by Kate Southwood.

  8. David, great list. Would you give me the title and author of the Flannery O'Connor biography? Thanks!

  9. April: It's "Flannery: A Life" by Brad Gooch. Truly an excellent biography. Which I should have finished by now, except I got distracted by "Fobbit"'s book tour this Fall.

  10. David,

    Alexis Smith owes you. While others you've raved about have made my TBR, her debut has been downloaded. I plan to make a reading triptych of Mrs. Dalloway, The Hours, and Glaciers. Thanks!


  11. Kerry,
    That's a great idea! Woolf, Cunningham, and Smith--couldn't think of a better way to spend a couple of afternoons.